December 2008

2008 12 25
Theater of War in theater

Posted by in: Documentaries

The Brecht documentary I mentioned a while back is now playing at the Film Forum. If you happen to be in NYC, you should check it out. More information below the fold:
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2008 12 17
“Freak show”

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Yesterday, in my brief write-up of Oliver Sacks’ book An Anthropologist on Mars, I wrote that Sacks is clearly interested in putting on more than a “freak show.” On a hunch, I just looked over at Sacks’ Wikipedia page, and sure enough, exactly this criticism turns out to have been made of Sacks.

Wikipedia also points to a paper by Thomas Couser called “The Case of Oliver Sacks: The ethics of neuroanthropology,” which is available here (pdf). It’s a sensitive and nuanced look at these criticisms and possible responses to them.

In Anthropologist, the only moment of discomfort I registered was in Sacks’ discussion of the private “sexy” drawings of the autistic artist, Stephen Wiltshire. These are private drawings that Wiltshire made, and which were discovered by his friend and mentor by accident. So they, and their existence, were clearly private. And Wiltshire is not just named in Sacks’ account, he has appeared on television on more than one occasion in connection with his artistic activities. Moreover, the inclusion of this information seemed to me unnecessary to the case (Sacks had a full enough sketch already of Wiltshire’s relations with the opposite sex), and so struck me as gratuitous as well as invasive.

In the rest of the book, however, I was struck by a real respect on Sacks’ part for his subjects, and in particular by his willingness to reconsider the conventional boundaries between pathology and the normal. That’s a reconsideration that seems to me of obvious relevance to the question of respect that Sacks’ critics raise.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 12 16
Recently read: An Anthropologist on Mars

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Oliver Sacks. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales

Some of the greatest insights into the normal functioning of the human mind have come from the investigation of strange and unusual breakdowns and disruptions in normal functioning. Take, for example, the phenomenon of blindsight. Someone afflicted by blindsight will experience herself as blind, and claim not to be able to see anything in front of her, but if forced to guess about the identity of an object in her visual field, will be able to more or less accurately identify it. (People with blindsight don’t always get it right. But they get it right more than could be explained by chance.) Blindsight hints at features of visual processing that might have taken much longer to unravel if we confined our attention to normal cases of visual perception. It suggests, among other things, that visual processing takes place along multiple paths; that those paths are not just distinct, but separable; that some of them are not available to conscious reflection.

Oliver Sacks has done more than anyone else to bring discussion of odd neurological edge cases into public awareness. It’s easy to imagine a parallel universe with an equally successful but much crappier version of Sacks. The cases he discusses are so strange, and so intrinsically interesting, that a much lesser writer could make them good enough to do quite well for himself. Luckily, we live in a universe in which our Sacks is interested in more than putting on a freak show. His case studies are historically and philosophically informed meditations that circle around a problem, often not content to simply slap labels or jump to quick conclusions.

And so in An Anthropologist on Mars Sacks uses disorders of various kinds to explore themes of much more general interest. In his first essay, for example, Sacks uses the case of a painter suddenly struck with complete colourblindness to explore the complex relationship between different aspects of visual perception, as well as the possibilities for regeneration and renewal in a person when a faculty absolutely central to self-identity is suddenly and irreversibly crippled.

Sacks tells us in the preface that his essays in the collection are unified by a theme:

These are tales of survival, survival under altered, sometimes radically altered, conditions—survival made possible by the wonderful (but sometimes dangerous) powers of reconstruction and adaptation we have. In earlier books I wrote of the ‘preservation’ of self, and (more rarely) of the ‘loss’ of self, in neurological disorders. I have to [sic?] come to think these terms too simple—and that there is neither loss nor preservation of identity in such situations, but, rather, its adaption, even its transmutation, given a radically altered brain and ‘reality.’

This seems to me a much better description of some of the cases discussed in the book than others. It fits very well Sacks’ discussion of the painter mentioned above, or his discussion of Temple Grandin, an autistic professor of Animal Science (whose book is on my reading list). But it was hard for me to see how an essay (“The Last Hippie”) about a brain damaged man with a severe memory disorder fit this theme.

This collection of essays is a bit dated – it was published in 1995. But it’s been on the shelf for ages, and I’ve only now gotten around to it. I’m looking forward to Sacks’ Musicophilia.

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2008 12 13
Recently read: No one belongs here more than you

Posted by in: Books

Miranda July. No one belongs here more than you

The phrase “no one belongs here more than you” is just hyperbolic enough that it’s hard to imagine it being said sincerely to anyone who actually belongs. It’s a fitting title for this collection of short stories about socially isolated, often sexually dysfunctional, depressed, obsessive compulsive misfits. Running through all the pieces, whether they’re narrated in the first or the third person, is the same creepy sensibility and manner of expression. I don’t know if that means that July isn’t terribly good as a writer at going beyond a single voice, or whether it means that she’s able to brilliantly explore a sensibility through a series of different characters. In any case, this book was as difficult to put down as it was disturbing.

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 12 09
Recently read: A Small Corner of Hell

Posted by in: Books, Russia

Anna Politkovskaya. A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya

This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. When she was assassinated in 2006, all I knew about Politkovskaya was that she was a journalist who covered the recent conflicts in Chechnya. Now that I’ve read A Small Corner of Hell, I can see why she was assassinated, and also why Putin couldn’t even bother to conceal his pleasure that she was no longer around to investigate his savage, inhuman little wars in Chechnya.

Politkovskaya has a keen sense of how the wretched conflicts Chechnya started, and how, once started, they became self-perpetuating with a host of cynical, exploitative generals, warlords, and politicians all profiting from it. In her book you get a decent analysis of how all these pieces fit together. But what you also get are closely rendered portraits of particular people caught in injustices so vicious they stagger the imagination. In the end, I think what makes her book so remarkable is this extraordinary range: from the larger structural view of the conflict right down to particular individuals caught in that nightmarish mess.

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2008 12 09
Recently read: The Now Habit

Posted by in: Books, Procrastination

Neil FioreThe Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play

The entire self-help genre is plagued by some pretty cheesy writing, but if you look past that this isn’t a bad book at all. Indeed, I wish I’d read it a long time ago, especially when I was working on, and putting off working on, my dissertation.

Fiore thinks that human beings are creative and productive in nature. But when they are beset by anxiety, or self-doubt, or resentment, they begin to procrastinate. This procrastination often leads to more work and more pain than it otherwise would, but procrastination is nevertheless a strategy that makes a certain amount of sense as a response to that anxiety and self-doubt. Unfortunately, once a pattern of procrastination has set in, it can easily become entrenched. If procrastination has left me with little time to complete a task, I’ll end up working very hard on it at the last minute and/or canceling periods of rest that might refresh me and that are an important part of restoring creativity and drive. Sapped of creativity and drive, I am then led to further procrastinate, resenting my situation, and anxious about its outcome.

Fiore has a lot of suggestions about overcoming this problem. One interesting one is simply to put a bunch of fun, relaxing things in your schedule. Watch the schedule fill up with those fun things. Commit to them. Now look at how little time you have. The chronic procrastinator, accustomed to wiping the slate clear to complete a long overdue task, may well overestimate how much time she has to get things done because she’s not mentally used to accounting for time off. But we need those breaks to restore us, so that we can work well and productively again. Other suggestions include tips on how to approach work that go a bit beyond the whole “break it down” routine you’ve probably heard before.

Anyway, if you’re a chronic procrastinator you might well find this book worthwhile.

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 12 09
Recently read: Emotional Awareness

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman. Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion

This book presents a series of dialogues between the well-known psychologist and researcher of facial expressions, Paul Ekman, and the Dalai Lama. I’m not sure how deeply they really manage to get into their topic, or whether this book was very helpful in allowing me to “overcome obstacles to psychological balance and compassion,” but the discussions are interesting nonetheless. It’s clear that a lot of care has gone into this book, as it contains not only dialogues but well-written guest-authored sidebars throughout containing further explanations about particular issues.

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2008 12 09
Recently read: In Search of Memory

Eric R. Kandel. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind

Eric Kandel’s family was forced to flee Austria in 1938 when Hitler’s Germany absorbed the country (with the enthusiastic consent of many Austrians). He wound up in Brooklyn, in my current neighbourhood. Indeed, for a few weeks he attended PS. 217, the school across the street from my apartment building, and less than 30 metres from the chair I was sitting in when I came across this fact (accounting for vertical displacement, since we’re on the sixth floor).

From Brooklyn, he went to Harvard and studied German literature. While there, he became entranced with psychoanalysis —all the rage in the 1950s — and determined to enter medical school in order to pursue a career as a psychoanalyst. But an interest in basic research in neurology gradually took over, and he ended up studying the biological bases of the very same phenomena that drew him originally to psychoanalysis: memory, consciousness, pathologies of the mind, and the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

For much of his career, Kandel’s approach has been what he terms “reductionist.” In order to study a phenomenon like memory, he chose a very simple organism with large neurons and simple, discernible patterns of learning and memory. Kandel’s star organism was Aplysia, a sort of very large sea snail. Kandel’s choice was disapproved of by some researchers who worried that a snail was too far removed from a human to shed any light on the formation of memories in the latter. But the choice turned out to be inspired. For it turns out that nature is, in some ways, deeply conservative. A successful technique once hit on is often elaborated upon without being completely abandoned. We are, in some limited but crucial respects, not so far from snails. And so Aplysia ended up teaching Kandel, and the rest of us, quite a bit about the biological roots of memory in humans as well as snails. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his work.

This is the fascinating and circuitous route traced by Kandel’s memoir, In Search of Memory: from Austria to Brooklyn to Harvard to psychoanalysis to neurobiology to snails and then back to humans and on to the Nobel Prize. It’s a wonderful read, filled with lucid and engaging accounts of the development of modern brain science. As is fitting for the memoir of a life consumed by a passion for science, much of the book is taken up with accounts of Kandel’s work. But there are moments of humanity sprinkled throughout, and Kandel is a fine writer when he tackles non-scientific issues. Of particular interest are his reflections on Vienna, the city he was forced to leave, the terrible toll that German and Austrian Nazis inflicted on the Jewish community of Austria and thereby on their own culture, and the conflicted, uncertain, and incomplete attempts by Austrians since then to come to terms with their treatment of Austria’s Jewish population. Highly recommended.

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2008 12 07
Recently read: In Praise of Slowness

Posted by in: Books

Carl Honoré In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed

Honoré doesn’t actually write in praise of slowness. “Slow” and its cognates are used by Honoré and many of the people he interviews to refer to doing things at the right speed. Take food, for example, where the slow movement—according to Honoré there actually is such a thing—is supposed to have gotten its start. Obviously a proponent of slow cooking is not going to insist that you sear a steak over several hours. This is something that needs to be done quickly to be done at all. But not everything needs to be seared; some of the best food takes a lot of time; and many people have gotten too rushed to slow down and take that time. So the slow movement is so-called, not because it wants people to mindlessly reduce the speed at which they do things, but because when people with hectic lives apply a corrective to their behaviour, it’s usually by slowing down things that they’re doing too quickly.

But slowness is more than that, apparently. At times, what Honoré seems to be describing is deliberateness, or thoughtfulness, or what a lot of people refer to nowadays as mindfulness. Or something. Since people doing things mindfully tend to really think about the consequences of their behaviour, then, slowness also comes to encompass a lot of other things like, for example, organic food. But it’s even more than that!

In this book, Fast and Slow do more than just describe a rate of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical [! . . . ?!? . . . $%^&*#!!!], stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.

Honoré explores this theme, such as it is, through subjects like food, medicine, work, sex, raising children, and so on.

I got this book out of the library because I thought it looked like an interesting meditation on how we spend our time, and how we might reorganize it to spend it more thoughtfully. It’s not. It’s a thinly researched, cliche-ridden, flight-magazine-article of a book. The author jumps around disjointedly from one topic to another in a way that becomes mindnumbingly formulaic by about the second chapter. Here’s the formula:

Nowadays, we engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] with breathtaking speed! I found a statistic in a book once that seems to support this. In Japan, we find this trend even more pronounced. In the past, it was common to engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] a bit more slowly. So-and-so once remarked that [insert little quotation and/or dubious or thinly researched factoid]. To be sure, in the past not everyone took such a leisurely approach [insert another factoid or quotation intended to immunize against counterexamples]. Still, it was indeed common to engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] at less than a dizzying pace. Nowadays, more and more people are choosing to engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] a bit more slowly. [omit evidence for this claim.] Indeed, increasingly people are turning to alternatives. [flimsy evidence for this claim.] To see whether this was worth the trouble, I enrolled in 3 days of a 10 day program touting the efficacy of X. It seemed to work! To get a better sense of what this was all about, I spoke to Y, who has recently rearranged her life around this new approach. She tells me her friends and family tell her that it seemed to work! That’s why increasingly people are choosing to engage in/take/consume/prepare/etc., [insert topic] a bit more slowly.

The basic problem with this book is that the author is trying to tackle a sociologically interesting subject, or set of subjects, but is simply unwilling to, well, slow down and take the time to research them properly and then write fluently about them. This is unfortunate. Every once in a while the author is willing to complicate his theme in a way that suggests the possibility of a more interesting approach, or stumbles briefly onto an especially interesting path. These moments led me to think that there was a better book somewhere in here struggling to get out. But it didn’t, and so this book is not recommended.

Howls of outrage (12)

2008 12 01
Recently read

Posted by in: Books, Food, History, Psychology, Race

Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an ethically and scientifically informed meditation on food, the modern food chain, and the ways in which the latter has distorted our relationship with the former. Pollan provides a fascinating overview of the highly dysfunctional system of agricultural subsidies that spur the overproduction of corn and a few other staples, and traces the effects of the corn glut through the rest of the food economy. He then explores alternatives to the modern agricultural system, beginning with mainstream organic farming, and moving on to much more radical departures from the mainstream. I thought that the passages on the killing and eating of animals were especially thoughtful.

E.R. Chamberlin. The Bad Popes

I’m not in a position to judge the reliability of the book, but I can say that it has a few entertaining moments, if Popes behaving badly is your thing. In style and tone, this book reminded me a bit, for better or worse, of John Julius Norwich‘s books.

Douglas A. Blackmon. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

If the North won the American Civil War, the South surely won the reconstruction. In the years following the Civil War, African Americans did not find themselves suddenly free to enjoy the fruits of the victory over their slave holders. Rather, whites developed a system that permitted them to hold blacks down with the threat of terrible violence, and which allowed them to make use of their forced labour under conditions that were, very often, worse than those endured by many slaves under the old regime of slavery.

Here’s how the system worked, as explained in considerable detail by Douglas A. Blackmon in his Slavery By Another Name: blacks would be arrested on bogus or trumped up charges. These often included “vagrancy,” an all-purpose charge to which any unemployed black man (in an era of massive unemployment) was vulnerable. Sometimes the charge was even forgotten by the time the victim had been brought to court. It hardly mattered. A sheriff or local judge could always be found to find the victim guilty, regardless of the merits of the case — especially because he could expect to profit himself from the proceedings. The victim was then assessed a fine, along with fees associated with the costs of the proceedings. Unable to pay, the victim would be coerced into signing an agreement to work off the sum in the service of a white who would pay in his stead. Entirely deprived of rights, blacks could then be locked up, beaten, tortured, fed next to nothing, traded, sold, and worked under conditions that accounted for the extremely high mortality rates among prisoners.

Every aspect of this twisted system is sickening. Arrest rates rose and fell according to the labour required in an area. The constant threat of arrest served as a reliable way of keeping blacks who weren’t prisoners in line. Any African American not directly under the protection of a white was vulnerable to arrest on trumped up charges. This power also helped perpetuate the widespread rape of African American women by white men. This is the bleak picture of American American life in this period that emerges from Blackmon’s account. If there is one figure that captures all this in a book filled with anecdotes, figures and arguments, it is surely this: that between the years 1877 and 1966 in the state of Georgia, only one white man was found guilty of murdering a black man.

The system also helped wealthier whites to crush attempts to unionize their industries. It’s hardly surprising that these attempts failed when management could always resort of cut-rate prisoner labour in the face of a threat to strike.

Blackmon makes a very strong case that this era of American history is best described as the Era of Neoslavery. It wasn’t until the second World War had begun that the Federal Government moved to begin enforcing laws in the South that it had long chosen to ignore.

This is a superb book, as angry as it is methodical. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand U.S. history. But because Blackmon does such a good job reflecting on the consequences of that history, it’s also essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the present.

Susan Blackmore. Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction

The title says it all. It was indeed very short, and the length of the text made it impossible for the author to do anything more than introduce a few topics in the study of consciousness. But as introductions go, this one struck me as pretty good: clear, readable, and interesting. Lots of good stuff on everything from the latest in philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, and more.

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2008 12 01
Oh, Canada!

Posted by in: Canada, Canadian politics

It doesn’t get a lot of attention in the US, but boy oh boy is there an awesome political drama going on in Canada right now. Here’s the latest. I’m pestering relatives and friends for help keeping up with this. If you want the basic story line, you’ve basically got a villain brought down by his own arrogance and overreaching (Harper) and a fractious, bumbling opposition apparently able to sock it to him. So far! But stay tuned. Will the new Liberal-NDP coalition fall apart? Will the Liberals, on the verge of a leadership race, break down in fresh in-fighting? What will the about-to-depart-but-suddenly-probably-PM Dion do next? Wither Rae? Ignatieff?

It’s a potential constitutional crisis wrapped in a lot of petty squabbling with the rich sauce of Schadenfreude poured all over the top. Oh, Canada! Sometimes I miss you so.

Howls of outrage (20)